Last night the political world went into a frenzy when MSNBC host Rachel Maddow announced she would be revealing some of President Trump’s tax documents. Then there was great disappointment, because she had only the first two summary pages of Trump’s 2005 tax return, which reveals a few things, but not the critical details that lie in the thousands of pages of Trump’s full returns. Where Trump is actually getting his income, whom he owes money to, how far and with whom his interests extend — all that is still opaque.
While the show aired, I joked on Twitter that the White House might have leaked the innocuous document themselves, to henceforth use this as an excuse to dismiss any questions about Trump releasing his returns. Lots of others had the same idea. But I’m fairly certain that when reporters ask when the public will get to see Trump’s returns, the White House will indeed be saying, “You saw that Maddow segment. This is all over nothing.” We can’t allow them to get away with it.
Throughout the campaign, Trump insisted that he couldn’t release his returns because he was being audited by the IRS. This was a lie, because the IRS doesn’t forbid you from making your returns public while you’re being audited. Furthermore, Trump never offered any proof that he actually was being audited, but he did say that once the audit was complete he would release them, which was obviously another lie. Anyone with half a brain could have concluded (and some of us did) that despite what he was saying, he’d never release them voluntarily. Once he became president, his aide Kellyanne Conway said, “The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him.”
We have never had a president for whom it was more important that we see their returns, because Trump has an extraordinarily complex web of financial interests all over the world, has refused to divest himself of those interests, and has, with his family, obviously seen the presidency as a golden opportunity to cash in. Which is why we all have to keep demanding them, until Trump releases them. It’ll almost certainly require a court order or a congressional subpoena to pry them from his hands, but if that’s what it takes, so be it.
And even in the two pages we got from his 2005 return, there’s some revealing information. That year Trump reported $153 million in income and $103 million in “losses” that probably include depreciation and sums carried forward from previous years, but we can’t be sure. He would have paid only $5.3 million in taxes, or a mere 3.5 percent, had it not been for the alternative minimum tax, which was established in order to prevent wealthy people from exploiting loopholes to avoid paying taxes. Because of the AMT, he paid taxes that year at a rate closer to 25 percent.
Now here’s the punch line: Guess what Trump’s tax plan does to the AMT? Yes, that’s right. It eliminates it.
Republicans in Congress such as Paul Ryan also want to get rid of the AMT. And as Dylan Matthews reminds us, Trump and other Republicans have also suggested slashing tax rates on “pass-through” income, where someone sets up a corporation whose profits are passed through directly to that individual; it’s how Trump makes much of his money. So his plan could save him tens of millions of dollars every year.
Whenever they make proposals like those and people point out they’re engineering a huge giveaway to the rich, Republicans always say that they’ll make up for it by “closing loopholes,” yet they never seem to be able to say exactly which loopholes they want to close. As the American Prospect’s Justin Miller has reported, the tax code contains special loopholes devised by the immensely powerful real estate industry that allow people like Trump to get away with paying little or nothing in taxes. Are those going to go? As you’ll recall, Trump said in a debate with Hillary Clinton that when he pays nothing in taxes, “That makes me smart.”
Whether the health-care bill succeeds or fails, the next big item on the GOP agenda is tax reform — indeed, nothing is closer to the GOP’s heart. When they gain power, there are many things they might or might not do, but they will always try to cut taxes for the wealthy (their version of health-care reform is also a huge giveaway to the wealthy). When that process begins, we have to know exactly how their plan is going to personally benefit the president.
And to know that, we need something else even more than Trump’s returns from 2005, or 1995 or 2015. We need to see the tax returns he files while he’s president. Every president for the past 40 years has released theirs — you can read them here. We need to know what he’s making, who’s paying him, and how it relates to the policy decisions he’s making. The past returns are important, but the future ones are even more vital. The White House will claim that nobody cares and it’s none of our business. But we do care, and it’s absolutely our business.